Letter from Europe

For a privileged few: travel corridors and air bridges

Issue no. 2020/25

Picture above: image © Khunaspix / dreamstime.com


We thought that the concept of the air corridor had been relegated to history until it popped up again this past spring, with the plucky English reviving the idea and giving it a new twist. We look at some of the privileged places that enjoy a special travel connection with the UK during COVID-19 times.

Dear fellow travellers

Berliners know a thing or two about air corridors. Even those who are not old enough to remember the Cold War have heard talk of the decades when West Berlin relied on three air corridors linking the city with the Federal Republic of Germany. Air corridors were a response by the Western Allies to what was perceived to be an existential threat to their Berlin exclave.

Air corridors suggest an edgy sense of survival in difficult times. There was a military precision about those air corridors, and there was always a sense of danger in flying routes to and from West Berlin.

We thought that the concept of the air corridor had been relegated to history until it popped up again this past spring, with the plucky English reviving the idea and giving it a new twist. Boris Johnson declared that the Westminster government would be negotiating preferential agreements between the UK and a select group of privileged overseas partners which would allow the creation of air corridors linking those countries to Britain. It quickly became clear that nobody particularly wanted to chat to Britain about this idea - and no surprise, perhaps, as Britain was at the time the country in Europe which was suffering more than most under the pandemic.

Beat the virus with air corridors

But the notion of sanitized corridors that could beat the COVID crisis and help revive international travel has really gained currency in Britain - where the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic has often relied on military metaphors. The air corridor, sometimes called an air bridge or a travel corridor, suggests images of brave Brits beating adversity. One imagines bewhiskered colonels poring over maps late at night as they plot potential air corridors. Boris Johnson evoked waves of imperial nostalgia when he talked of Australia and Singapore as possible destinations.

While many European countries talked of solidarity and cooperation, the threat to Britain was cast as an existential one, and as such demanded a quasi-military response. In this respect, British rhetoric emulated that introduced in the US much earlier. On 18 March, President Trump had invoked images of ‘the invisible enemy’ and referred to himself as ‘a wartime president’.

The Westminster government has continued to promote the notion of an existential threat with ‘air corridors’ as part of the solution. So we have followed with great interest the various announcements about the creation and closure of the magnificent network of travel corridors which now links Britain with the rest of the world.

The plane now arriving from Pitcairn Island…

So let’s honour some of the privileged partner states and territories where residents can hop on a plane and fly without let or hindrance to London without any risk of facing quarantine upon arrival.

A round of applause, please, for Tristan da Cunha. And now please raise your hands for British Antarctic Territory, South Georgia, Vatican City and Liechtenstein.

These are just a handful of that elite club of nations which have, after close scrutiny by Whitehall experts, been chosen as worthy destinations for Britain’s travel corridors. British Antarctic Territory does at least have an airstrip, but it has no civilian passenger flights. The other four mentioned above have no airport. Besides, a great number of the territories linked by air corridors simply don’t have any direct flights to the UK. And some are absolutely unpopulated. Virtual air corridors now link Britain with uninhabited places like the South Sandwich Islands. And we sleep a little easier at night knowing that Henderson Island in the South Pacific benefits from having a dedicated travel corridor to England. The population of Henderson Island is zero.

The quarantine burden

While the Westminster government has facilitated holiday flights for Brits wanting to get their annual dose of sun, sea and sand - and so helped boost COVID infections in those areas to which Brits have travelled - the UK’s quarantine arrangements impose a draconian burden on visitors from most countries around the world, including those arriving from the majority of European countries.

While a returning UK resident can just go home to quarantine, few visitors from outside Britain can possibly afford the cost of an enforced two-week stay in a rented holiday apartment. Those electing for confinement to a hotel room, with meals delivered to the door, face even larger bills. Quarantine is a blunt instrument which should be used with care, ideally in combination with rigorous testing for infection.

The asymmetric impact of the quarantine regime, effectively creating a greater hurdle for visitors than for residents, speaks volumes about Britain’s priorities.

Environmental costs of an ill-conceived policy

We also note that Britain’s current rules have a negative environmental impact. The permissive corridors are generally air corridors. None of the regular passenger ferry services from the continent to Great Britain can currently offer quarantine-free entry into Britain.

There are excellent freight ferries from Denmark, Germany and Norway to Immingham (on England’s east coast) which have in the past carried a limited number of leisure passengers and their cars. But the UK authorities have now decreed that they will not sanction the entry of leisure travellers at Immingham.

There are of course great train services from the continent to Britain. But these all originate in areas which are on Britain’s quarantine list.

The net results of all these regulations is that anyone wanting to visit Britain from Germany, Latvia or Liechtenstein - or indeed most of the countries currently on Britain’s ‘green’ list - is required to fly if they wish to avoid quarantine. Mind you, that’s not so easy from airportless Liechtenstein as the principality borders onto just two countries, and both of those are on the quarantine list. So we hold out no great hope for residents of little Liechtenstein who are planning a September holiday in Leicester or Liverpool.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)